Time to Give America a Raise

It’s been a good week for the nation’s numerous poverty-wage workers. They’ve been way overdue for a good week.

On Tuesday, the Labor Department issued a much anticipated and delayed extension of the federal minimum wage and overtime regulations to the nation’s 2 million homecare workers. Last Thursday, the California legislature passed (and Governor Jerry Brown pledged to sign) a bill that raised the mega-state’s minimum wage from $8-an-hour to $10.

Taken together, these two measures limiting poverty-wage work underscore a host of significant changes to the political economy. The Labor Department’s extension of the minimum wage recognizes the growth of homecare as an industry increasingly like any other, with agencies big and small, many relying on partial government subsidies, employing millions of workers. It also signals the continuing extension of federal work standards beyond those that originally covered white men disproportionately. When the Fair Labor Standards Act (which established the federal minimum wage) was first passed in 1938, it did not apply to agricultural or retail workers—that is, chiefly, to blacks and women. Over the past 75 years, Democratic administrations have expanded its scope (retail workers weren’t included until the early 1960s), and as of today (more precisely, as of January 1, 2015, when today’s announced changes take effect), it now covers a workforce made up chiefly of women of color.

The California and national reforms also signal that the efforts of workers to call attention to low-wage work—the work stoppages of fast-food and Wal-Mart employees most prominently—have had an effect on the national (or at least, the Democratic) psyche. Minimum-wage increases are also now pending in other Democratic states, such as Maryland, and Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, having just vetoed an ordinance which would have required Wal-Mart to pay a living wage to its District employees, is all but compelled to back an ordinance raising Washington’s minimum wage as well.

Last week’s AFL-CIO convention also made clear that economic groups once considered on the margins of the economy have moved to the center of the action. The federation voted to extend membership to groups of workers who for one reason or another are precluded from forming traditional unions. The Taxi Drivers Alliance, which joined the AFL-CIO two years ago, saw its leader, Bhairavi Desai, elected to the federation’s executive council. Ai-Jen Poo, who heads the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has also emerged as a labor leader for the new economy.

Whether by coincidence or design, the Labor Department’s announcement came on the same day that the Census Bureau issued its annual report on the nation’s income and poverty levels. Narrowly construed, the news out of the Census Bureau was that there was no news: Poverty and income levels were roughly the same in 2012 as they’d been in 2011. That means that poverty continues to hover at 15 percent of the population, and that median household income is 11.6 percent lower than it was in 2000. That means that everyone in the bottom 80 percent of income distribution is making considerably less than they were when Lehman Brothers collapsed five years ago. America needs a raise—as collective bargaining has all but vanished from the national landscape, about the only way that can happen is through the kind of legislated or regulatory changes that we’ve seen in the past week. American workers will have to regain, somehow, the power they’ve lost over the past half-century to win the kind of raises that were once a commonplace whenever the economy grew. 

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